According to Wendy Awai-Dakroub, nobody leaves Hawaii, because why would you? So, imagine her mom’s surprise when she announced that she was moving to California after graduating from high school. At first, her mom was exasperated, but then quickly relented. She had always told her daughter that all she wanted was for her to be happy.

“When I was growing up in Honolulu, there was no pressure about the future, school, and career, my mom just wanted me to be happy and be a good human,” Awai-Dakroub says. “But my grandfather showed me postcards from around the world and told me if I wanted to do anything great, I needed to leave Hawaii.”

Awai-Dakroub moved in with her uncle in Orange County and enrolled in a local college to study law. It didn’t take long for her to realize law school wasn’t for her.

“I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but the studies literally put me to sleep,” Awai-Dakroub says. “I decided I was too creative for it, so I had to come up with a different plan.”

Her mom worked as a secretary and encouraged Awai-Dakroub to attend secretarial school to learn how to type. Although reluctant at first, it was a wise career move.

“I was the fastest typist in my class,” Awai-Dakroub says. “The timing was good because it was just as personal computers were starting to come out.”

Because of her typing speed, Awai-Dakroub was immediately snapped up to do secretarial and data entry work at a medical instruments company that manufactured ventilators. After four years working at the California headquarters, an opportunity presented itself to relocate to the Middle East.

“My boss was moving to Dubai to open a sales office and asked me to come help,” Awai-Dakroub says. “I was single and always wanted to travel, so I jumped at the chance, never guessing I would end up staying in Dubai for 17 years.”

Advancing Her Career in Technology

After two years, Awai-Dakroub applied for an office manager role at Cisco Systems’ Dubai office. While she thought it was a stretch because she didn’t have a college degree, she felt she had nothing to lose.

“I interviewed with five people and, even though I didn’t have a college education, I had no fear because I had a ‘life degree,’” Awai-Dakroub says. “I think they hired me because I was the only female, American candidate actually ‘living’ in the Middle East.”

She joined Cisco in 1995 and, within two years, was tapped for a marketing manager position for the Middle East territory. She describes it as a heady time. The Cisco Dubai office had grown from four people to more than 200 in two years, and the company’s stock was taking off. Suddenly, she was in a professional role in a high-growth tech company that would allow her to travel throughout the Middle East and Europe. Within a few years, she advanced to a regional managerial position overseeing 20 marketing managers throughout the region and was responsible for bringing in millions of dollars in revenue.

Making Her Entrepreneurial Dreams a Reality

While the Cisco work was demanding and exciting, Awai-Dakroub had always wanted to start her own business and felt the Dubai market presented a perfect opportunity. So, on the side, she decided to open a restaurant.

Her brother moved from Hawaii to Dubai to help, and together they opened Sumo Sushi & Bento, the first affordable Japanese restaurant in Dubai. With the Dubai economy booming, it appeared the timing was right. Awai-Dakroub says the restaurant was an overnight success. With family support, she was able to juggle her career at Cisco and oversee the restaurant simultaneously.

But during her early years as a restauranteur, Awai-Dakroub started to think about sustainability.

“We quickly became the largest purchaser of fish in the region, and I started to feel uncomfortable about it because of sustainability,” Awai-Dakroub says. “Hawaiians are all about taking care of the land and the Earth. We call it ‘Malama Aina,’ so I needed to figure out how to make the business both successful and sustainable.”

Under Awai-Dakroub's direction, management started modifying its menu and purchasing protocols to practice good corporate citizenship. It would take nearly 20 years, though, for Awai-Dakroub to start her formal training in sustainable business practices through Harvard Business School Online.

After getting married and spending nearly 17 years in Dubai, Awai-Dakroub and her husband, from Beirut, decided to move back to Honolulu to be near her family while starting their own. She was able to transition out of the restaurant but remains involved as a consultant.

Wendy Awai-Dakroub and Her Family

Upon returning to Honolulu, Awai-Dakroub and her husband opened two Middle Eastern restaurants, which kept her busy while raising two small children. Yet, she was disturbed by how much had changed in Hawaii, with over-crowding, a shortage of good-paying jobs, skyrocketing expenses, and a rise in homelessness. She was inspired to act.

“To see your home change so much was upsetting, but I didn’t know how to fix it,” Awai-Dakroub says. “I thought there must be a way for me to apply all I had learned from working in tech to making businesses in Hawaii more successful and sustainable.”

Before starting her Hawaiian-based tech business, Awai-Dakroub and her husband still had wanderlust, so they set off to travel internationally with their children while they were young. Their kids were five and seven, and, in four years, the family traveled to 27 countries. They supported themselves by consulting online with restaurants, and Awai-Dakroub used her marketing skills to freelance write for various media outlets. She then started Pint Size Gourmets, a blog that journaled their travels through the eyes of her children and their adventures with food.

Today, Pint Size Gourmets has nearly 12,000 followers on Instagram, but Awai-Dakroub describes it simply as a hobby to satisfy her passion for food.

How HBS Online Helped Build Her Purpose-Driven Business

The family returned to Honolulu in 2019, and Awai-Dakroub started researching online courses to help her realize her vision to make businesses in Hawaii sustainable. When she found HBS Online’s Sustainable Business Strategy course, it seemed like the perfect fit, yet she was intimidated by her lack of an undergraduate degree.

“I sat on it for a while and then decided to go for it,” she says. “The worse that could happen is I would be rejected. The day I got my acceptance was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Awai-Dakroub says the course was better than she expected. It didn’t focus on climate change, but rather what businesses need to do to have a positive impact. The most poignant part for her was the aquifer teaching element, because Mauna Kea, an ancient and sacred place for native Hawaiians, and the largest aquifer in Hawaii, was in jeopardy because of the possible siting of a large telescope nearby.

“The aquifer case was very emotional for me because it touched on a personal level,” she says. “The message from Professor Henderson was it shouldn’t be all about making money, but more about taking care of the land. In Hawaii, ‘Aloha ʻĀina’ is not just a word; it’s a central idea of Native Hawaiian thought, cosmology, and culture. It literally means ‘love of the land,’ so if you take something, you should give something back. It was a big wakeup call for me because I realized I could do something to make a difference at home.”

Awai-Dakroub says the course made her feel like she was finally in college. She enjoyed working in small groups with a global cohort.

“This was my first online course, and it was amazing to work with people from all over the globe to solve the world’s problems,” Awai-Dakroub says.

Sustainable Business Strategy

Awai-Dakroub is now dedicated to promoting the visibility of Native Hawaiians in the tech industry and partners with local companies and international organizations to drive equitable outcomes for tech workers who live and work in Hawaii. She started Ōhi’a Technology to help local businesses and nonprofits in Hawaii implement and adopt technology into their business infrastructure to compete globally.

“The idea is to create and keep high-paying tech jobs in Hawaii by matching engineering students with businesses and nonprofits that need technical infrastructure,” she says. “The businesses get the technological resources they need to scale, and the students get valuable experience with the hopes that they can stay in Hawaii.”

She adds, “This is a perfect time to help businesses stay in business. Sustainable Business Strategy taught us that we need to learn from the past in order to pass on something better for the next generation.”

It’s early days for her business, but Awai-Dakroub is excited to make an impact in her own community that will help children in Hawaii have a better future.

If you’re interested in helping your business become more responsible and realize how actions today could impact future generations, explore our three-week online Sustainable Business Strategy course.

Michele Reynolds

About the Author

Michele Reynolds handles brand marketing and PR for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to HBS Online, she led communications for TripAdvisor and Gazelle and has been widely quoted in national media outlets, including CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times. Michele earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. Outside work, she spends time with her teenage daughter, plays tennis, and visits her enormous extended family.